While there has been lots of discussion about sustainability recently, sustainability at the national level goes back almost 50 years, beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, NEPA “requires federal government to use all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.” More broadly, experts define sustainability as meeting the “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In a world that is becoming increasingly interdependent — nation to nation, businesses to suppliers and customers, and even business to nature — it’s sometimes difficult to know the full impact of decisions that affect these interdependencies. Nation to nation, the recently proposed trade bans could cause significant disruptions in business. Specific environmental requirements set at both state and national levels can effectively close off markets to companies (and potentially entire industries) that are not in compliance. Volkswagen’s attempt to bypass these regulations and the shrinking diesel vehicle market show just how important it can be to consider sustainability in assessing long-term business viability.
Sustainability can present opportunities for businesses, as well. Understanding energy usage and water usage, as well as waste generation can help companies reduce costs. Customers and younger employees are increasingly interested in how companies show good corporate social responsibility, including how green they are.
Because large organizations have sustainability experts and, at times, entire divisions dedicated to sustainability, small and medium-sized entities (SMEs) might think sustainability is not relevant to them. SMEs’ lack of expertise makes it difficult to know exactly where to start. And with all the new initiatives, there is a risk that the administrative and financial costs outweigh the benefits. The idea is to start small using the following steps:
Baseline — Review energy and water usage to establish where you currently are. You can also use online calculators to estimate your carbon footprint. They assess your current habits, and most also offer suggestions for reducing your footprint — including an energy audit.
Get smart — Attending a conference or workshop provides a chance to learn and an opportunity to network. Last month, IUPUI hosted the inaugural Indianapolis Sustainability Summit. Attendees learned about a variety of topics including public health, environmental policy, food, mobility, sustainable business practices, waste and water.
Stay informed — Both legislation and technology are in constant flux. The Hoosier Environmental Council tracks proposed environmental legislation in the State. The Energy Department as well as Indianapolis Power and Light and Duke Energy, offer many resources on technology and saving energy.
Take action — Internally, companies can look at win-win practices for the company and the environment as good starting points. Saving energy by adjusting thermostats and lighting, especially at night and on the weekends, can have immediate payback. For further savings, computers can be set to sleep mode after extended periods of inactivity. Indy’s Commuter Connect can assist in creating car pools for employees with similar schedules, even if the riders don’t work for the same company. Faith-based organizations have an excellent resource in Hoosier Interfaith Power ans Light (HIPL). HIPL offers several workshops per year including how to start and grow a “green ministry.”
Employers can also encourage employees to support programs that are already in place, like Indy’s ToxDrop and National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, as a way of encouraging sustainability awareness. Externally, supporting employee volunteerism is a good way to both empower employees and strengthen the business’ tie with the community. Empowered employees can then act as catalysts for further sustainability practices.
I encourage you, today, to be a sustainability advocate, both in your work and at home. Little steps can make a big impact, and it takes just one step to begin a movement.
Nolan Taylor is a clinical assistant professor of information systems at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business on IUPUI’s campus